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Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe

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BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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“I'm a patient man,” Mr. Delaney assured me. “I've worked at the phone company for fifteen years and I'd like to think I know a thing or two about human nature and how to get around it.” He'd considered himself, for a while at least, my father's ally, giving him several chances to redress his debt. The supervisor seemed to be asking me why his ordinarily successful methods of persuasion had failed. I heard strains of my own exasperation in his voice and wanted to do what I could to help remedy the situation without taking sides.

As much as I empathized with Mr. Delaney, it had always been a relief when my father directed his wrath toward someone other than me. Hearing about Dad's transgressions also stirred an unexpected pride. Wasn't his belligerence a form of self-defense, a martial art? Whatever “guff” was, it was something he wouldn't take from anyone. By standing up against the phone company, my father remained triumphantly guffless.

“He can be difficult,” I told the supervisor.

“May I ask if this is typical behavior?”

“He's always been erratic. Although, if someone is always erratic, I guess they're consistent.”

Mr. Delaney cleared his throat. He may have thought that my father and I were peas in a pod. There I stood, tethered to my kitchen wall by a curling phone cord, speculating with some muckety-muck from the phone company about my father's refusal to pay his bill, all the while knowing that, given my income, if asked to send a check in Dad's stead, I'd soon be refusing to pay the bill, too. Were my father's circumstances contagious? If they were, I was about to find myself in serious arrears.

“According to our records, your father was born in nineteen-oh-six?”


Aught
-six.”

“Pardon?”


Aught
is what he was taught to call zero. Way back when.”

“Then it's safe to say he's getting on in years?”

“Safe to say to me, maybe. Not to him.”

He chuckled dismally. “You're right on that score. I made the mistake of telling him he was one of our oldest customers.”

“He's eccentric, if that's what you're getting at, but I don't think he's senile.” Over the years, Dad's personality had been distilled into a set of essential peculiarities—but whose hadn't?—and I wasn't sure if this indicated a slide toward senility or if it was an inevitable process whereby time pared each of us down to some fundamental self who, after all the
mishigas
we've been through, can't help but be a little muddled.

The supervisor's questions were putting me on the defensive. The expectation that I could provide information regarding my father only reminded me how little I knew him. I worried that the more questions a stranger asked—
Why had your father gone into law? How did he get along with his parents?
—the faster I'd run out of answers. My father and I were not only foreign to each other, but foreign to what sometimes seemed like a worldwide confederacy of
well-adjusted fathers and sons whose grasp of each other was a given, encoded in their DNA. If I couldn't explain my father to myself, how could I explain him to a stranger?

Delaney must have sensed my unease. He said, “I'm not here to cast aspersions.”

You're not here at all, I wanted to remind him.

What if I
could
afford to be magnanimous? What if I squared away the debt without breathing a word to my father? One day he'd notice that the “nut” from Pacific Bell had stopped badgering him. One day he'd open his bill to discover that aught was due.

“How much does he owe?” I asked.

Rustle of paperwork. Rapid tapping on a calculator.

Outside my kitchen window, a cloudless blue covered the L.A. basin. If property owners also owned the air above their lots, then a parcel of sky belonged to my father.

“One thousand seventy-four dollars,” said the supervisor, “and forty-eight cents.”

I inhaled sharply. “Were the calls long distance?”

“Recently, yes. To Irving, Texas.”

“Irving, Texas?”

“Would your father have reason to contact the Benny Hinn Ministries?”

“That faith healer on TV?”

“Our records don't specify the nature of Mr. Hinn's ministry.”

“First of all, my father's Jewish …”

“That may be true, Mr. Cooper, but—”

“I think his girlfriend—I mean his nurse—made those calls.”

“Do either of them have access to his phone?”

“They're the same person. She's lived with him for about two months.”

“It's not just the calls to Texas your father claims he didn't make. He denies having made local calls, too. He says he hardly uses his phone. He says I'm the only person who calls him.”

“That's absolutely untrue! He has gout and I've been calling him a lot! Going over to visit him, too. He didn't even know he had gout
until I told him about …” I was going to mention Sylvia Plath, then thought better of it. “I'm his only son, you know.”

“Actually, I didn't. Not until I found your number. Your father told me that all of his boys had passed away.”

“He did?” Then I heard it perfectly.
I lost all my sons. Who the hell am I gonna call?
It stung to imagine my father summarily dispatching me to the afterlife, but it would have stung more had I not been familiar with his all-or-nothing logic. Claiming he had no sons left to lose would fill him with bitter exhilaration. His excuse curtailed future grief—how could I die if I wasn't alive?—and financial obligation to Pacific Bell.

“Any suggestions?” asked the supervisor.

One thousand seventy-four dollars and forty-eight cents. If my brothers and I could have divided our father's debt four ways, we'd each have to pay … I had trouble making the calculation. It involved long division in the temporal sense, winnowing and continuous. My brothers had been good at math. My brothers were gone.

Instead of going to college after he graduated from high school, my eldest brother, Bob, signed up for a state-approved home-study course on becoming a licensed private investigator. I was in fifth grade at the time, and there seemed to be a link between his choice of career and the Hardy Boys books he'd collected when he'd been my age. A row of enticing, telegraphic titles—
The Hidden Harbor Mystery, The Disappearing Floor
—still lined a shelf in his bedroom. The course included lessons on how to do background checks, trace missing persons, pursue suspects on foot and in vehicles, and make arrests—what amateur sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy generally referred to as “foul play” and “shady characters.” At the beginning of every month, when our postman delivered a new tutorial sealed in a bulky envelope, Bob thundered downstairs, tore it open, and began reading on the way back to his room.

“What did I tell you?” my father said when Bob marveled at
how well the lessons were going. “Investigation is nothing more than horse sense.”

“He has an
aptitude,
” corrected mother.

I asked what horse sense meant.

My father turned to my mother. “Open your ears, Lillian. That's what I just said.”

“It's the kind of smarts,” Bob explained, “that even a dumb animal has.”

The three of us looked at my father.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked.

Bob had to complete two years of fieldwork before receiving his credentials, and so, after passing the oral and written exams, he moved into an apartment in Glendale and began his life as my father's salaried employee. The job took him to far-flung parts of town—Montebello, El Camino, names as exotic to me then as Shangri-La—where he served subpoenas, located men who were delinquent on alimony or child support payments, and surveilled, through the tinted windows of his Pontiac, husbands and wives suspected of what my mother called “assignations.” She used the euphemism for my sake, unaware that after I'd spent hours poring over my father's scrapbook, it was too late to shield me from the meaning of
infidelity
. I'd come across the word in several clippings, then found it in my dictionary between
inferno
and
infirmary,
which seemed to explain why my father's chain-smoking, foot-jiggling clientele were nervous people.

It was difficult to know whether Bob possessed a talent for surreptitiousness before he studied private investigation or whether he developed it on the job. Laconic and watchful, he moved with agile silence despite his husky six-foot frame. People were often surprised to find that he'd entered or left a room unnoticed. He listened closely to conversations he gave the appearance of ignoring, able to repeat long afterward who said what to whom. Bob worked best—that is, most inconspicuously—at night, his dark car camouflaged as he idled curbside and noted the comings and goings of his “mark.” His brown eyes were capable of a disconcerting fixity, and large
enough to suggest—at least to a boy eager for signs of his brother's superhuman prowess—nocturnal vision. Whenever he came home to visit, I could have sworn that his black hair and gabardine suits gave off the scent of night itself, the way other men returned from work with the smell of tobacco embedded in their clothes.

Bob kept a Smith & Wesson .38 wedged into the shoulder holster beneath his jacket. Or so I was told. No matter how much I begged to see it, even a glimpse of the gun was strictly forbidden, a condition imposed by my parents and one Bob upheld with a gravity befitting the eldest son. To “get me off his case,” he one day opened his wallet and unfolded the license that entitled him to carry a concealed weapon. A wrinkled piece of paper was a poor substitute for the silvery thrill of a gun, but I forgot my disappointment when I studied the intricate whorls of his thumbprint, like a tiny map of concentric streets.

Back then I didn't see him as the shy young man I later came to understand he was, but as a scout who'd traveled into adulthood before me. If he was the most remote among my brothers, I figured it was because he was nearly twenty years older than I, had prowled the Pacific aboard a submarine during the Korean War, and lived beyond the walls of our house. His boxy stucco apartment building was improbably called the Emerald Arms, a name that made his independence all the more exotic.

Three years younger than Bob, Ron had to channel his ambition toward the practice of law by giving up what he called, with unconvincing dismissiveness, his hobby. Ron's bedroom was always pungent with the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. An easel stood beside his bed, ready (or so I thought) should he jump up inspired in the middle of the night. His oval palette, encrusted with every conceivable color, was a messy, epic artwork in itself. If I opened the door while he stood at his easel, my ordinarily friendly brother would freeze, brush in hand, his narrowed eyes a warning to back off. His privacy was as palpable as a wall. From my point of view—no further than the portal—Ron's works in progress were always of a single subject: a stretched canvas glimpsed from behind.

It never ceased to surprise me that Ron's allotment of solitude yielded actual paintings: still lifes in which the apples and grapes our mother bought at the A&P would stay edible forever, in which the birds-of-paradise clipped from our yard lifted their slender necks from a vase, the blooms a tropical, avian orange my brother had captured exactly. Ron painted the view from his second-story bedroom window in different seasons and at various times of day: streets and cars and terra-cotta roofs sprawling beneath the neighborhood's congregation of ancient palms, their mangy fronds tossed by the wind or drooping and darkly varnished after rain. He once hung this series of paintings along the wall so I could see them all at once—a row of windows opening onto a world that refused to stand still, time and light spooling through them like a reel of film through our father's Bell & Howell. Ron was quick to acknowledge his errors in perspective and proportion, pointing out details blurred by haste or clumsy brushwork. Instead of causing him frustration, one painting's deficiencies drove him to begin another. The only chance to rectify his craft was to start anew, to fail again.

Left to his own devices, Ron would have become a painter. He had about him the apologetic air of a person who feels himself tugged, despite every compelling reason against it, toward a life about which our suburbs and schools and television shows remained essentially silent, unless you counted the paint-by-number kits sold at Thrifty or the tale of Vincent van Gogh lopping off his own ear. Ron was the only person I knew who took painting seriously. The scarcity of other people who shared his interest only strengthened my impression that artists, along with eccentrics of any stripe, were banished to a place called Bohemia in much the same way that bad Catholics were banished to purgatory, except that Bohemia was closer to New York.

Our father looked upon Ron's artistic ambition, and later on mine, with the silent disapproval of a man whose child is drawn to a world he will never comprehend or be a part of, an exclusion that must have been particularly exasperating for someone who'd shed his own history so that he could become an indivisible citizen of the
nation into which his children were born. But our father's scoffing wouldn't have been enough to deter Ron if he hadn't harbored reservations of his own. He was a practical young man—punctual, organized, judicious in his opinions despite a flaring temper my mother attributed to the firebrand of his red hair—as much as he was a young man dizzied by the possibility that everything he saw in three dimensions could be rendered in two. Ron's decision to pursue a conventional profession didn't result from a failure of nerve; giving up art was the greater risk, and his life as a lawyer, like every life, was perilous, experimental.

That Richard, the youngest of my brothers, was closest to my age only accentuated the fifteen-year gulf between us. Like Ron and Bob, he was an altogether different species from me, a giant whose footsteps shook the floor. He could juggle three oranges at a time, which, from my grade school point of view, was a crucial rite of passage into manhood. While I inhabited the family's sidelines, Richard counted himself among a shoving triumvirate of brothers who jockeyed for a spot before the bathroom mirror, each dousing his hair with Vitalis and sculpting it into the “fenders” and “flattops” he'd primp throughout the day. Nothing, absolutely nothing would muss it up except maybe the wind of a hurtling convertible or a woman running her fingers through his hair—or so they'd boast to one another as they wiped swaths of steam off the mirror, young men grooming themselves for a shared daydream of speed and release.

BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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